Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/01/15/tory_national_security_plans/

Tories: We will set up a permanent 'War Cabinet'

Cyber, security, defence rebranding policy unveiled

By Lewis Page

Posted in Security, 15th January 2010 13:22 GMT

Analysis Today the Conservative Party - the bookies' favourite to be the next government of old Blighty - sets out as much of its plans on national-security matters as it is willing to share before this year's election.

PM-in-waiting David Cameron, in a speech delivered today at Chatham House, promised "one of the most radical departures in security policy we’ve seen in decades" and assured the nation that "this isn’t some rebranding exercise, a nod towards new thinking, an attempt to paper over the cracks while time slips away".

Detail is provided in a paper (but not the sort you put over cracks), which can be found here. Curiously, the pic* chosen to head the Tory webpage shows two servicemen - presumably foreigners, as they aren't wearing British issue kit - staring moodily at some parked Canadian jets.

Here are a few highlights, touching on the issues which matter to Reg readers.

First up, the Tories make the now-obligatory nod to national cyber security, speaking of "the reliance of developed societies and economies on networks and computer systems for the effective functioning of all aspects of daily life". They say that "the threat of cyber attack is widely disregarded" and that "the West, which has become so dependent on technology, will also find that its current technological superiority will decline".

But the Tories will sort this out:

A Conservative government will set up a Cyber Threat and Assessment Centre (CTAC), by building on the existing Cyber Security Operations Centre to provide a common operating picture, threat assessment and situational awareness to users. It will act as the single reporting point for all cyber-related incidents. This will lay the foundation for the development of a National Operations Centre able to respond to cyber events.

The Conservatives also promise that everyone in law enforcement will become "cyber literate" under their rule, and further that "the gap in national digital forensics capability will be addressed".

There's some crowdpleasing stuff, though, for those who feel that the British security community is already a damn sight too keen on new surveillance and forensic technology and databases in which to keep the resulting files. Cameron and Co promise that they will:

...review relevant national databases and systems to develop a clear statement of purpose for each in line with the principles of proportionality and necessity, and to develop adequate governance regimes including strengthening and adequately resourcing the Information Commissioner’s Office.

There's a repeat of earlier pledges to scrap Labour's national ID card scheme and to shift the main police DNA database onto the same rules as in Scotland (signatures can only be held for those awaiting trial on prison-worthy offences, and retained only on conviction or for those charged with violent or sex crimes).

However, the Tories don't offer even a hint of a promise on existing plans by the spook community for mass trawling of almost all electronic communications, the so-called Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP). They merely say that the IMP will "be reviewed".

*Changed since we filed this story, funnily enough.

Permanent 'War Cabinet' organisation, even when there's no war

There's also a bone for those like the Daily Mail readership convinced that local councils nationwide are using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to carry out vast amounts of phone-tapping etc targeted at bin criminals, council-tax dodgers, fradulent school applicants and so on (this is not actually happening: the huge surge in intercept requests in recent times has emanated almost entirely from cops and spooks). However, the Tories will stamp firmly on the town halls anyway:

[We will] review the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to limit the exercise of surveillance and interception powers to national security, the pursuit of serious organised crime, and maintenance of national economic wellbeing, and to those bodies and persons properly authorised.

At the top level, the Tories say they'll establish a "National Security Council" including all relevant ministers and their top mandarins - in effect, as they admit, a "de facto ‘War Cabinet’". This will be a permanent structure, though, supported by a National Security Adviser and a large permanent Secretariat in Whitehall.

On defence matters, Mr Cameron has almost nothing in the way of specifics to offer other than the phrase "we can't go on like this". The only firm commitment is to "retaining Britain's minimum strategic nuclear deterrent".

There's lip service paid to helping international nuke-disarmament talks get along, but the Tories also (correctly) note that the British nuclear force can't really be reduced any more without disappearing altogether, useful as it might be to offer some such moves as bargaining chips with other powers.

The fact that the Defence budget can't possibly cover the armed services' procurement plans is alluded to, with talk of "tough decisions" to be made and the facts that "classic conventional war seems a low probability" and "equipment programmes cannot be based on wish-lists or the fantasy world of what we would like to do if resources were unlimited" - hinting at painful times ahead, perhaps, for the navy and the air force in particular. (Though there's a phrase later on which may comfort them somewhat, especially the navy: "We have as big an interest as we have ever done in keeping the sea lanes free and open.")

Yet the Tories fall into the same trap as Labour has done (and indeed the last Conservative government did too) - that of assuming that lamentable procurement performance comes simply from the MoD, rather than primarily from political directives to buy from monopolistic and inefficient British arms suppliers.

[The UK needs] drastic improvements in our defence equipment acquisition process to avoid the delay, confusion and cost overruns which have become all too familiar. A Conservative government will therefore engage industry in a sustained dialogue on strategy and policy development.

Labour did just that, in the form of the now widely discredited Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) of 2005, which - as you would expect from a discussion with British industry - said that everything possible was to be bought from British industry regardless of price. The last Tory defence-procurement minister of the 1990s, James Arbuthnot (nowadays head of the parliamentary defence committee), is a huge advocate of this sort of "strategy and policy development", too.

With this commitment in advance to keep on paying UK factories to reinvent American wheels and to keep on buying our military kit from the resulting short production runs, the Strategic Defence Review looks to be hamstrung before it's even begun. In this respect at least, the Tories' defence policy is indeed nothing more than a rebranding of the same bankrupt policy that has been followed with such depressing results by government after government. ®